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Tank Destroyers of World War II

Tank killers. 

Tank hunters. 

Tank destroyers. 

Whatever you call them, the tracked monsters designed to obliterate enemy tanks during World War II were seriously impressive machines. 

Masters at ambushing and killing traditional tanks, they came into their own in the war in Europe. 

Though they didn’t necessarily pioneer the concept, the Germans took the idea farther than any other country, and many of their tank destroyers became legends.

That said, the Brits, American, French, Russians and Italians had them too. 

Design

Most tank destroyers of World War II didn’t have turrets, but instead featured fixed casemate superstructures.

In other words, they were steel boxes on tracked chassis. 

This layout had a number of pros and cons. 

Unlike true tanks with fully rotatable turrets, tank destroyer guns had relatively small traverses – usually only between 20 and 30 degrees due to minimal interior space which severely limited breach swing.

Though their field of fire increased dramatically over long distances, it still caused serious and sometimes deadly problems during combat, because if the target was outside this cone, the whole vehicle had to be moved to line the gun up.  

On the plus side, tank destroyers had much lower profiles than tanks which made them harder to see, hit and kill. 

In addition, they often packed bigger, more potent guns than tanks, and their thick heavily sloped frontal armor was nearly impenetrable by many cannons unless fired from dangerously close range.  

But perhaps most importantly, tank destroyers were generally simpler, less expensive and quicker to build. 

This allowed Germany to level the proverbial playing field against the Russians and Americans, both of which produced armored vehicles in far greater numbers. 

Out of necessity, tank destroyers did sometimes engage other tanks in pitched battles, but ambush predators by design, they relied heavily on ‘shoot and scoot’ tactics.

Taking out as many tanks as they could from as far away as possible, they retreated as soon as they were discovered, outnumbered, or when they were at risk of being outflanked. 

Now relics of the past more than seven decades later, tank destroyers with heavy cannons have been replaced by all purpose main battle tanks and lightly armored tracked and wheeled vehicles sporting guided missiles. 

Germany

Collectively called Panzerjägers or “tank hunters,” the first German tank killers were Frankenstein-like machines cobbled together with chassis and cannons from existing vehicles. 

Armor protection was light and crews were often forced to work, fight and live in open compartments that were susceptible to everything from rain and snow to small arms fire, hand grenades and well placed Molotov cocktails. 

Panzerjäger I.
Panzerjäger I. By Bundesarchiv, is licensed under CC-BY-SA

Early German tank destroyers had anemic cannons, though they were continuously upgraded and sometimes fitted with far more lethal captured Soviet 76 mm anti-tank guns which were mounted onto modified chassis. 

These vehicles were referred to as Marders and Nashorns.

Later versions of these heavy hitters had high-velocity 75 and 88 mm guns respectively, both of which had significantly longer ranges and more killing power than anything in Allied vehicles at the time. 

But though the thin-skinned Marders and Nashorns could dish out the punishment, they just couldn’t take it. 

Replacements were badly needed. 

Sturmgeschütz III

Ironically, one of Germany’s most iconic tank destroyers didn’t start life as a tank destroyer at all. 

Sturmgeschütz’ were a series of self-propelled artillery guns originally relegated to supporting infantry units. 

They were often pressed into the anti-tank role out of necessity, but thanks to their low-velocity short-barreled cannons that barely protruded from their hulls, they weren’t particularly effective at penetrating enemy armor.  

Sturmgeschütz III with long barrelled gun
Sturmgeschütz III with long barrelled gun. By Bukvoed, is licensed under CC-BY

Based on Panzer III tank chassis, later versions had high-velocity anti-tank guns which enabled them to function as real tank destroyers. 

Resulting in a design that originated in the late 1930s, the Sturmgeschütz III – or StuG III – was about 22 feet long (6.85 m) but just 7 feet high (2.1 m). 

Tipping the scales at about 24 tons, (21,700 kg) each StuG was crewed by a commander, driver, gunner, and loader. 

Armor was between 16 and 80 mm thick, and the main armament was a 75 mm L48 cannon that fired projectiles at about 2,500 feet per second (750 m/s). 

StuGs were also fitted with at least one defensive MG34 or MG42 machine gun and were powered by 300 horsepower Maybach V-12s paired with 6-speed transmissions. 

With an operation range of just 95 miles (155 km) and a top speed of 25 miles per hour (40 km/h), their mobility wasn’t great, but they were one of the most numerous fully tracked armoured fighting vehicles of the war.

More than 10,000 StuG IIIs were built, and though reliable statistics are hard to come by, some estimates suggest that in 1944 alone they killed nearly 20,000 Allied tanks, most of which were Soviet. 

Jagdpanther

In some respects Jagdpanthers or “hunting panthers” were larger versions of StuGs, but they were never meant to be anything other than dedicated tank killers. 

Jagdpanthers didn’t enter service until 1944, and they didn’t play as crucial a role as they could have if they’d been introduced earlier and built in greater numbers. 

To make matters worse, during this time the German war machine was plagued by persistent parts shortages, a lack of fuel, and young inexperienced crews being thrust into roles for which they were never properly trained. 

Jagdpanther.
Jagdpanther. By Mark Pellegrini, is licensed under CC-BY-SA

Though many of  its predecessors were too heavy, too underpowered and too lightly armored, the Jagdpanther hit on a near perfect mix of protection, mobility and firepower that made it a true standout. 

Classified as a heavy tank destroyer, the first full-size Daimler-Benz mockup was demonstrated to Hitler and Wehrmacht brass in late 1943, and production began in January of the following year. 

At 9 feet high (2.7 m), 11 feet wide (3.4 m), 32 feet long (9.8 m) long, and weighing about 45 tons (40,800 kg), Jagdpanthers were formidable by any standards. 

Encased in armor that ranged from 80 mm in the front to 50 and 40 mm on the sides and rear respectively, they offered their crew of five a relatively safe and spacious fighting compartment. 

Featuring the uber-effective 88 mm Pak 43 anti-tank cannon similar to the one on the King Tiger, Jagdpanther guns were mounted in a central mantlet and capable of traversing 12 degrees to each side

Firing armor piercing projectiles at nearly 3,500 feet per second (1,030 m/s), there wasn’t much through which they couldn’t punch. 

Powered by Maybach gasoline V-12s with nearly 700 horsepower, Jagdpanthers had relatively high power-to-weight ratios, ranges of 124 miles (200 km), and top speeds approaching 30 miles per hour (46 km/h) on the road. 

With only a few main variants, most changes and upgrades were limited to accessory parts like sights, engine covers and gun mantlets. 

Originally the main gun had a one piece barrel, but it was later replaced with a two piece unit due to uneven wear issues that limited service life. 

Some Jagdpanthers were also fitted with textured Zimmerit finish which was applied up until late 1944 to prevent Soviet infantrymen from sticking magnetic mines to the hull, but this was later stopped to decrease cost and speed up production. 

Early manufacturing targets were set at between 100 and 200 units per month, but actual production fell well short, and just 415 were made before the war’s end. 

Jagdpanthers were encountered in the west including at the Battle of Normandy, but they primarily served on the Eastern Front against Soviet armor. 

After the war dozens were shipped to Britain and America for testing and evaluation, and one restored example is now on display at the Bovington Tank Museum in England. 

Jagdtiger

When it comes to truly fearsome and gargantuan World War II tank destroyers, all others pale compared to the Jagdtiger or “hunting tiger.”

At nearly 72 tons (71,600 kg) and nine feet (2.8 m) tall, in addition to their sheer bulk Jagdtigers were blessed with perhaps the most effective anti-tank gun of the war – the behemoth 128 mm Pak 44 – L/55  that was capable of killing enemy tanks from distances of nearly two miles, or more than 3,000 meters. 

jagdtiger tank distroyer
Jagdtiger. By Hohum, is licensed under CC-BY

Featuring prominent fixed turret-like casements, Jagdtigers looked like traditional tanks, but with armor ranging from 250 mm in the front, 150 mm on the hull and 80 mm on the sides and rear, they were much more heavily armored.   

One Achilles’ heel however was a painfully low power-to-weight ratio that resulted in limited mobility, ground pressure issues and persistent mechanical problems that put them out of service much of the time. 

Operational range was between 50 and 75 miles (80 and 120 km) depending on terrain, and top speed was just 21 miles per hour (34 km/h), though it was rarely attained. 

Of the two prototypes introduced in early 1943, one featured a Porsche designed suspension and running gear while the other competing model was built by Henschel. 

Henschel’s overlapping road wheel system was ultimately adopted for production, though a number of Porsche vehicles saw limited service as well. 

The Wehrmacht originally ordered 150 Jagdtigers, though only about  85 were actually built, many by forced laborers at the concentration camp at St. Valentin.

Of the engagements in which they were involved Jagdtigers performed well attacking formerly impenetrable bunkers, and in one case in April of 1945, knocking out nearly a dozen tanks and 30 lightly armored vehicles from approximately 2.5 miles or 4,000 meters. 

Though they could be disabled by well placed rounds from Allied tanks into their tracks and suspensions, they were largely indestructible. 

Most losses resulted from mechanical breakdown, scuttling when capture was imminent, and strafing from aircraft like Mustangs and P-47s. 

Soviet ISU-122

When they made their combat debut in early 1944, ISU-122s were often used as assault guns and self-propelled howitzers, but their primary role morphed into killing German tanks. 

The 122 mm anti-tank gun was another of the most lethal anti-tank weapons of the war, but it wasn’t particularly accurate, and due to shortages crews were often forced to use high-explosive instead of armor-piercing rounds.  

Even in 1944 the Soviets had only one armor-piercing round design available, but though high-explosive shells weren’t made to penetrate armor, they often packed enough mass and velocity to knock out their adversaries from great distances.

Soviet ISU-122
Soviet ISU-122. By Radomil is licensed under CC-BY-SA

As the war dragged on Soviet crews became more proficient at their craft, and with muzzle velocities around 2,600 feet per second (800 m/s), in direct fire mode 122 mm projectiles were capable of penetrating nearly 85 mm at almost two miles or 3,000 yards. 

Due to particularly long barrel length however, maneuvering in urban environments was tricky.

ISUs were deadly against unprotected infantry positions and reinforced fortifications, but they excelled on flat terrain where their heavy armor, low silhouettes and powerful guns could be used to the greatest effect.  

Weighing about 45 tons and crewed by either four or five, ISUs had between 90 and 120 mm of armor up front, but with power output from their 12 cylinder diesels at just 520 horsepower they were relatively underpowered and had top speeds of just 23 miles per hour (37 km/h).   

Early designs had abysmally low rates of fire thanks to manually operated breeches, but later versions in vehicles with experienced crews and upgraded breeches could generally get off three or four shots per minute with relative accuracy. 

Including all variants more than 2,400 units were built, and after the war many were repurposed as self-propelled artillery, rocket launchers and supply and recovery vehicles.  

Some stayed in service until the early ‘60s retaining their original cannons, receiving only modest upgrades to gun sights and radios.

When they were finally retired from military service, many ISUs got second leases on life as railway maintenance and arctic transport vehicles in the northern Soviet Union.  

American M10

Whereas most tank destroyers of the era were low-profile turretless designs with exceptionally powerful cannons, the M10 was quite the opposite. 

Originally called the 3-inch Gun Motor Carriage M10, instead, M10s relied on speed and maneuverability. 

When production began in late 1942 it was thought tank destroyers would play an important role in halting mass German armor assaults. 

Despite the Allies overwhelming numerical superiority, Army brass concluded that many concentrated tank formations would succeed in breaking through relatively thin lines, and that tank destroyers would be able to stem the flow. 

M10 Tank Destroyer
M10 Tank Destroyer. By BonesBrigade, is licensed under CC-BY-SA

To that end, 80 battalions with more than 2,400 tank destroyers and towed guns were created. 

However, the assumption didn’t pan out, and the American tank destroyer battalions saw limited use in their intended role. 

They did have a number of significant engagements with their German adversaries, but in the end most units were split up and reassigned to support the infantry. 

Weighing about 29 tons (26,300 kg), just 19 feet 7 inches (5.97 m) long, and standing nearly 10 feet (2.8 m) tall, M10s were high and light by tank destroyer standards. 

With frontal armor just 57.2 mm thick and open topped turrets to save weight, they were dangerously thin skinned, and survival rates for their 5-man crews weren’t particularly good.

The M10’s 76.2 mm cannon fired its projectiles at a mediocre 2,400 feet per second (730 m/s). 

Armor penetration was acceptable at intermediate ranges, but projectiles lacked the mass and velocity to pierce the heavy armor of most German tanks at greater distances.

To counter these inherent deficiencies, crews relied largely on ambushes from concealed positions, after which they used their superior mobility to get out of range of their opponent’s more powerful cannons. 

Power came from either a General Motors 6046 “twin diesel” producing 375 horsepower, or a Ford gasoline V-8 rated at 450 horsepower. 

Though neither was particularly powerful, thanks to their minimal weight M10s were among the fastest and most mobile tracked vehicles of the war. 

Between June 1944 and May 1945 total M10 strength fluctuated between about 400 and 800 units, with monthly losses exceeding 500 and 700 units in September, November and December of 1944. 

All told more than 6,400 units were produced by GM and Ford in just over a year, some of which saw service as late as 1948 in the Arab-Israeli War.

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